Dan SabbaghThu, 18 February 2021, 7:00 am
Three women who were victims of rape or sexual assault while serving in the military have accused the veterans minister, Johnny Mercer, of backtracking on promises made to them in a parliamentary debate.
They fear Mercer has jeopardised their hopes of securing a change in the law to stop military courts ruling on rape cases in remarks he made during the second reading of the armed forces bill last week.
The women say Mercer misrepresented to MPs the key conclusion of an independent review of the courts martial system – and they want him to correct the parliamentary record as soon as possible.
“We were promised a review of all the guidance and policies on the handling of sexual violence cases in the armed forces, which the defence secretary accepts need serious attention,” one of the women said.
“But we are now really worried that the minister appears to be misrepresenting to parliament what his own independent expert has said and advised,” added the woman, who cannot be identified for legal reasons.
The three brought a legal challenge against the Ministry of Defence last year, arguing that military courts should no longer handle UK rape cases, because the conviction rate is five to six times lower than in normal civilian courts.
But they agreed to settle partly in return for a promise that MPs would have a chance to debate the issue during the passage of the upcoming armed forces bill. Their hope is that a cross-party amendment could be passed to change the law.
During the second reading of the bill, Mercer was challenged by Labour’s John Healey as to why the government had refused to accept a recommendation from the independent Lyons review that cases of rape, murder and manslaughter “should be dealt with by the civilian justice system”, not the military courts.
In reply, Mercer claimed Healey was wrong. “We cannot reject a recommendation that did not exist,” Mercer told MPs. “That was not the recommendation of the Lyons review, as the right honourable gentleman well knows.”
Shaun Lyons carried out the review of the military justice system, which has long existed in parallel with the civilian system and is able to investigate and try the most serious criminal offences involving military personnel.
Lyons’ first recommendation was: “The court martial jurisdiction should no longer include murder, manslaughter and rape when these offences are committed in the UK, except when the consent of the attorney general is given.”
However, ministers rejected that recommendation last year. The MoD said the military justice system was “capable of dealing with the most serious offences and should be able to continue to do so” – a decision that prompted the women to bring the legal challenge.
Following Mercer’s comments, the Centre for Military Justice, which was representing the three women, wrote to the MoD calling on the minister to urgently and publicly clarify his remarks.
Emma Norton, the director of the centre, said: “Our clients were assured by the defence secretary that parliament would now have an opportunity to debate this issue fully. Parliament cannot do that if the position of the independent expert is being misrepresented by the minister.
“Our clients have instructed us to request that the minister, if he concedes that he has misstated the position, correct himself in parliament and that he do so as soon as possible.”
The MoD indicated it believed there was no need for Mercer to revise the parliamentary record. A spokesperson said: “The Lyons review did not recommend cases of murder, manslaughter and rape should not be tried in the service justice system, but that the consent of the attorney general should be required in these instances.”
The spokesperson said the bill would also create a duty for the Crown Prosecution Service to work with its military equivalent to create a protocol on how serious crimes should be handled. This would establish, they said, “the most appropriate route to justice for each offence”.